Alex Gibney wants his documentary to do more than shine a light on Scientology. He wants the government to stop making us pay for it.

By Nicole Sperling
Updated March 12, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Sam Painter

Going Clear

  • Book

Scientology is one of the most controversial organizations in the world. It’s been called a cult. It’s been accused of brainwashing its members. Germany has been trying to ban it for decades. And for years former members have been speaking out about the organization’s questionable practices—only to go nearly unheard until now.

Documentarian Alex Gibney, a man who has taken on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) and torture tactics by the CIA (Taxi to the Dark Side), had been asked many times over the years to examine Scientology, but he’d always viewed the organization like many others do: too dangerous and too fringe for him to get involved. That changed after he got hold of an early draft of Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief. The two men had collaborated on the adaptation of Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and Gibney was struck by what Going Clear outlined as egregious abuses. “I read Larry’s book. It pissed me off,” he says.

Chief among Gibney’s concerns were the allegations of child-labor-law violations and Scientology’s tax-exempt status as an official religion, which the IRS granted the organization in 1993. According to Wright’s book, it’s a designation that has often thwarted the FBI and others from pursuing the church on alleged charges of slave labor. In a detailed and lengthy statement to EW the church rejects any and all charges of wrong-doing, and dismisses the movie as “pure and simple false propaganda.”

The Church of Scientology declines to release the official size of its membership, but Wright says reports of 8 million followers are grossly inflated. He estimates that it has between 25,000 and 30,000 members, and he claims in his book that the organization’s status as a religion has enabled this small group to amass $1 billion in liquid assets.

“One of the messages we are trying to get across is ‘It’s time to stop being afraid of Scientology,’ ” says Wright, who is also a producer on the film. “The FBI is clearly out of the investigating-Scientology business, and that’s where journalism comes into play.” Adds Gibney, “Sometimes you have to embarrass the authorities to do the right thing.”

Going Clear, which was produced by HBO and will premiere on the channel on March 29 after debuting in select theaters on March 13, seeks not only to illuminate Scientology’s secrets but also to inspire action. “The film doesn’t necessarily ask you to go out and write a letter to the IRS or beckon stars to come forward,” says HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins. “But I think Alex and Larry, having worked so hard and so long and so accurately on this, feel that something needs to be shaken. Something needs to be done.”

Gibney’s documentary shames those who have enabled the church to become a monolith, while explaining how idealistic, intelligent people have evolved into its acolytes. The film also spends a solid half hour discussing Scientology’s most famous members—Tom Cruise and John Travolta—and provides detailed descriptions of the church’s involvement in Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman.

Key to the film are interviews with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), who was a devoted member for 35 years but left in 2009; the church’s former second in command Marty Rathbun; former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder; and actor and former member Jason Beghe.

All of them provide disturbing personal accounts of their time in the church, including stories of physical abuse and a process called “disconnection,” whereby any Scientologist who wishes to leave the faith is declared a “suppressive person.” Any family or friends who belong to the church are forced to cut off contact with the member. In a statement the church says there is no policy that requires members to “disconnect,” and adds that the film “is built on falsehoods invented by admitted liars.” Gibney’s sources, the church says, “All remain bitter after having been removed in disgrace and expelled more than a decade ago from the Church after they secretly conspired to suborn perjury and destroy evidence. They cannot be trusted, and no statements they make can be believed.”

Gibney relied heavily on Wright’s research, including the 47 volumes of material the church provided to The New Yorker, where his 2011 investigation into Scientology first appeared. Wright calls the intense fact-checking process “the greatest day of my life.” Still, the church has threatened both men with litigation. “If they sue us, they won’t win,” says Gibney. “We didn’t libel them. We told the truth.”

So far the organization seems inclined to defend itself in the court of public opinion rather than in a court of law. They’ve asked Wright to do an interview with the church’s Freedom magazine, and he says he’s game if Gibney can also interview Scientologist chairman of the board David Miscavige. Scientology has paid for Google ads that direct anyone who searches for Going Clear, Gibney, Wright, or HBO’s Nevins to Freedom’s site, and it has posted a flurry of online videos attempting to discredit the film, including one that discusses Gibney’s deceased father, a journalist they claim made propaganda for the CIA. The videos also assert that Gibney filmed Going Clear in secret and never contacted the church for comment. Gibney counters that he reached out for specific interviews with key members—Miscavige and Cruise among them—but was rebuffed.

Wright and Gibney remain steadfast in their goal: to get the government to revoke Scientology’s tax status—an action both men think is unlikely—or at the very least to encourage high-profile members of the church to speak out. But really, they’d be satisfied if they could get just one man to see Going Clear. “I would like to think Tom Cruise would watch the movie, or read the book, and would consider accepting the responsibility he has, because he can make a change,” says Wright. “If he were willing to do that, it might be the salvation of the very religion that he endorses.”

Going Clear

  • Book
  • Lawrence Wright
  • Knopf